MaryAnn and I camped in our little “canned ham” retro trailer at Oliver Lee State Park. It’s a lovely park on the western slope of the Sacramento Mountains just south of Alamogordo. The park is best noted for two things: Dog Canyon and the old Oliver Lee Ranch House.
Dog Canyon is one of the most famous Apache refuges in the entire Southwest. It wasn’t that the soldiers didn’t know where the Apaches were hiding; it was just too dangerous to follow them. They tried, but the steep nature of the canyon exposed them to Apache rifle fire and even rocks being hurled down at them. One of the more infamous ambush locations has the innocent-sounding name of “The Eyebrow.” It’s a popular hike out of the campground, but bring plenty of water. This is not a walk in a city park.
And what about Oliver Lee? A few months ago I wrote about the 1896 disappearance of Albert Fountain and his eight-year-old son Henry on a lonely trail near Alamogordo. Sheriff Pat Garrett arrested Lee for the murders, but there were no dead bodies and no witnesses to the act itself. Lee and two buddies were acquitted and released. Guilty or not, Oliver Lee harbored a fear that Sheriff Garrett was still after him and would find a way to kill him eventually.
A trip to Oliver Lee’s ranch house sheds some light on his fears. We took the guided tour. The house has been completely rebuilt and is now just about as it must have looked when Mr. Lee lived there. The first thing I noticed was that every room had a door to the outside. According to our guide, this was so Oliver Lee could always escape out the back no matter what direction the sheriff used.
But perhaps the weirdest feature was that a side of the bedroom fireplace contained a secret door that led into a tunnel which resurfaced several hundred yards away from the house.
Oliver Lee, though acquitted of child murder and whose cattle empire at one time was said to include a million acres, still seemed to live with fear every day.
Mr. Lee sold the ranch in 1914, but stayed on to run the place. He later served a couple terms in the state legislature. He died at home, peacefully, from a stroke in 1941.
Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.